Travel/Memphis: Visiting Miss Daisy

Travel/Memphis: Visiting Miss Daisy

By FRANK HOSEK

At the time of Frances Neely Mallory's death in 1969 at the age of 98, the affluence and former glory of Adams Avenue, the site of her residence for nearly 90 years, had long since passed her by.

Miss Daisy, as Mrs. Mallory was known, lived in a section of Memphis, Tenn., once referred to as "Millionaire's Row." However, by the end of the emotional 1960s, urban renewal, the sprawling expansion of a growing city and the increasing demand for commercial property had the bulldozers poised to remove some of the grandest homes in Memphis history.

When Memphis was the largest inland cotton market in the world, riverboats loaded with cotton meant big business, and cotton profits paid for the opulence of the families up and down Adams.

In its former glory, Adams and those streets around it, in an area now known as Victorian Village, were flanked with stately homes that reflected the wealth and grand tastes of their owners. With their soaring rooflines, magnificent entrances and tall windows, the homes echoed the majestic Victorian sensibilities of the times.

Today, you can briefly revisit that age of Memphian Grandeur through the homes of the Victorian Village, a neighborhood of 19th-century homes and chapels that have survived the test of time and man.

Besides the Mallory-Neely House, the village includes several historic residences that are open to the public, including the Woodruff-Fontaine House, also operating as a museum, and the James Lee Home, restored into a luxurious bed and breakfast. All told, there are 12 homes and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places that make up the Victorian Village.

In 1883, James Columbus Neely bought the house located at 652 Adams Ave. and lived there with his wife, Frances, and their five children. He added a third floor and raised the existing tower to get a better view of the Mississippi River.

In an Italianate-villa style, there are 25 rooms, including nine bedrooms and two baths for a total of 15,900 square feet of living space. Daisy returned to the mansion in 1900 with her husband, cotton financier Barton Lee Mallory, where they raised their three children.

After Mallory died in 1938, Daisy remained in the residence until her death, where upon she deeded the mansion and its original furnishings to the Daughters, Sons, and Children of the American Revolution.

On a raw, overcast March day, we walked from the Peabody Hotel, itself a grand holdover from another time, to Adams Avenue.

Today, the area has a decidedly mixed-use appearance. The sterile facades of public-service buildings and vintage 1970-ish apartment units are interspersed with the restrained but imposing grace of elegant Victorian manors overseeing the time-worn streets like aging dowagers overseeing their declining fortunes. All of which is framed with giant magnolia trees.

From the street side, the Mallory-Neely House confronts you with its impressive countenance. Directed by signs, we walked to the three-story restored carriage house in the rear where the visitors center is located. We arrived to find the docent struggling with a balky alarm system that did not wish to cooperate.

Joyce, as she introduced herself to us, conceded that there was no reason to wait for others on this imperfect day and proceeded to escort us to the front door and an entirely different era.

We entered through double doors with stained-glass windows, purchased at the Chicago World's Fair, into an imposing entry hall with 14-foot ceilings. Intended to impress, it met its goal. With its gold leaf fleur-de-lis walls, hand-painted ceilings, parquet flooring, oriental carpet and the portrait of "Miss Daisy," the hall grabs your attention immediately.

Next is the first-floor double parlor, a study in opulence and grand decor. A series of busts, molded on-site by Italian artisans, line the ceiling. A Chinese silk screen depicts the four seasons, and Antonio Canova's "Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss" is replicated in solid marble. It is so heavy that the parlor floor under it had to be reinforced by a brick column built in the basement.

The dining room, with its lavish place setting for 12 is frozen in time, forever awaiting the family.

However, what really made the house come alive was the family's, and particularly Miss Daisy's, history. As no other guests were pushing us and with the alarm intermittently chirping its concerns, Joyce regaled us with the family's story.

Her older sister, Pearl, married a son of the mayor of Atlanta in the house in 1890, in front of 400 guests. Her oldest son, Bill, a decorated soldier of the World War II, died a few days before the end of the war. Then there was Annie Cartwright Bess. Hired as a servant and nanny in 1907, she worked nearly 50 years in the home. After both had been widowed, Miss Daisy moved Annie into the room next to hers, formerly her husbands, as a companion and house-mate. A highly unusual move in a town with deep southern sensibilities, as Annie was African-American.

The families' tale is murmured through the little details. A 1950-ish portable black and white TV sits incongruously next to 19th-century walnut tester bed in Annie's room. A W.C. Handy-signed copy of "The Memphis Blues" sheet music sits atop of the piano in the library. The first residential elevator installed in a closet on the second floor after Miss Daisy became too infirmed to take the stairs.

What is typically a 40-minute tour turned into a nearly two-hour family portrait. For a brief moment under the clouds, our day was brightened by a visit with Miss Daisy.

The house is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, withtours on the hour and half-hour and the last tour taking off at 3 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults.

View more information at memphismuseums.org/historic-houses/about/mallory-neely-house/.

Frank Hosek of Bourbonnais is director of human resources at Carpet Weavers Inc. in Champaign. His hobbies include travel, reading, writing and photography.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (1):Travel
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